The estate of the infamous Nazi propagandist, Leni Riefenstahl, has bequeathed photos, films, manuscripts and letters from the filmmaker’s personal archives to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. The Berlin-based organization announced that Riefenstahl’s estate had donated the collection which the director had accumulated over the course of her life.
Riefenstahl’s secretary, who was the sole heir to her estate, made the contribution to the foundation. Sources say there were over 700 boxes in the delivery.
Hermann Parzinger, the President of the Foundation, said the group was intent on treating the items with “a social responsibility.” They intend to examine the controversial material critically.
Riefenstahl was born in Berlin in 1902. She began her career as a dancer before becoming an actress in the 1920s. She started making films herself in the 1930s.
Riefenstahl is as equally known for her technical innovations as her Nazi propaganda. Her new methods laid the foundations for much of the experimental filmmaking in the 20th century. They also brought her work to the attention of Adolf Hitler.
Hitler commissioned Riefenstahl to film a documentary about the Nazi Party’s Nuremberg Rally as her ability and personality enamored him. After initially receiving a refusal, Hitler offered an unlimited budget and complete artistic control. Riefenstahl responded by producing “Triumph of the Will” generally considered an epic documentary and one of the greatest propaganda films ever made.
She followed up with a documentary about the Berlin Olympics, “Olympia” in 1936. The film won numerous awards including a special award from the International Olympic Committee for its depiction of the joy of sport. During the filming, Riefenstahl innovated many new techniques for filming, including the ‘tracking shot’ filmed with a camera mounted on rails.
During WWII, she became disillusioned by the Nazi authorities having witnessed German soldiers executing Polish civilians.
She worked to distance herself from the Nazi movement, filming “Tiefland (Lowlands).” Filming took four years, and the film itself was delayed from release for eight years when she was arrested by French authorities and had all her film confiscated.
Controversy followed “Tiefland,” after it was released when it was learned that Riefenstahl had ‘borrowed’ Roma prisoners from a German labor camp. When filming was finished, she returned them to the camp – they were eventually deported to Auschwitz and killed. A civil suit was filed against her, but it was dropped in 2002 after she retracted a statement she had made that all the prisoners had survived the war.
Following the war, she was considered a Nazi sympathizer, but she was never convicted of war crimes. For the rest of her life, she denied knowing anything about the Holocaust.
She never regained her standing in the cinematic community after the war. Instead, she turned to still photography. She published an illustrated book in the 1970s about the Nuba tribe in Sudan. The Sudanese Government gave her special permission to enter the region where they lived. She was the first white woman to do so. She spent 15 years among them and documented their ways. It was criticized at the time for its “fascist aesthetics.”
In her 70s, Riefenstahl began experimenting with underwater photography. To obtain her diving certificate, she lied about her age as she was older than the limit. By the age of 95, she was considered the oldest female diver in the world and had amassed over 2,000 dives to photograph some of the most amazing coral reefs in the world.
Riefenstahl died in 2003 at the age of 101.